It's true. Curtis Hanson's 8 Mile is, as I'm sure you've heard, a lot like Rocky. The plot follows the same underdog-done-good formula almost to the letter.
Instead of a beef-pummeling Italian meatball coming up from the ghetto in Philadelphia, we have a bumper-pressing white-trash rapper coming up from the ghetto in Detroit (Eminem).
Instead of fists, we've got lips. Instead of a boxing match, we've got an MC Battle. Instead of brawn, we've got brains. Instead of drinking raw eggs, we've got puking. Instead of Adrian, we've got Alex (Brittany Murphy). Instead of Mickey, we've got Future (Mekhi Phfifer). Instead of Pauly, we've got Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones). Etc., etc. ...
The acting was ... uh, good. Eminem was able to stay just far enough outside his various personas to seem almost like the person I would imagine "the real Marshall Mathers" might be. Mekhi Phfifer, Evan Jones, Omar Benson Miller and D'Angelo Wilson formed a believable coterie. Brittany Murphy played a perfect hot-'n'-slutty-feminist-out-for-herself type. Kim Basinger (as Stephanie, the mom) was adequate.
Point is, the story's got that timeless appeal that seems to find its way out of every generation -- by far the greatest example being Jimmy Cliff's Jamaican equivalent, The Harder They Come, which ended in a socially tragic way, making it all the more allegorical. What ultimately made 8 Mile most interesting and entirely likable is that it makes a valiant and competent attempt to dramatize and put a face on a new generation of class struggle.
If the multi-platinum sales of Slim Shady/Marshall Mathers/Eminem records don't speak for themselves, the trials and tribulations of this one skinny white boy from Detroit would appear to be speaking to the masses. Perhaps it's just the kind of voyeuristic "reality" appeal that brought so many white kids into the hip-hop fold when gangster rap began to storm the suburban record stores in the late '80s. Just as likely, however, is the fact that the white "middle class" is now waking up to find itself where most American minorities have been all along: in poverty. And Eminem's giving a voice to those issues.
While the film asks us somewhat gratuitously to see that Eminem's character Jimmy Rabbit faces a kind of reverse discrimination in the factory where he works and in the largely black neighborhood where he runs, Eminem's own characterization of himself as "the worst thing since Elvis Presley" is probably a lot closer to home when it comes to cultural cache. Nevertheless, despite the muddled race politics the film tries to oversimplify and frequently ignore, you can compliment the filmmakers for attempting to put everyone on the more-or-less equal footing of class. It's idealized, but closer to the truth than most Americans would like to believe.
Beyond that, the film at times plays a bit like an extended apology. When Jimmy stands up for a gay co-worker in a lunchyard MC battle, we're all meant to pat him on the back for bravely defying his homophobic track record. But then again, Em already did a duo with Elton John, and can't a man have a few contradictions? Jimmy's ultimate reconciliation and redemption with his mom also plays out like a dramatic apologia.
The fact is he's as talented and charismatic on screen as he is on his records and in concert. That's what got him where he is. And that alone is enough to keep you in your seat.